To my male friends whom I encouraged to eat more to bulk up, whom I teased for throwing like a girl, with whom I sympathized when they complained that some girls wanted to drink un-harassed, I’m sorry.
The term “hegemonic masculinity” was not in my vocabulary until the dog days of this past summer, on the balcony of my favorite coffeehouse with a good friend I consider to be a walking Wikipedia – when I'm feeling generous, an encyclopedia. I was interning at a local news station at the time, and had been assigned to write a feature on rape after an alleged rape had occurred at the nearby university.
“So, we’ve all grown up under a system of hegemonic masculinity,” he told me between bites of his lunch. Because he knows me and my shamefully limited vocabulary so well, he paused in the middle of his spiel and asked with forced patience, “Do you know what hegemonic masculinity is?”
I admitted that I did not, and he launched into an explanation. Hegemonic masculinity is a societal structure that expects, often pressures, a man to be authoritative, athletic, aggressive, heterosexual and sexual. It means that a real man is big, independent and can hold alcohol. Indirectly, it means that a real man is superior to a real woman.
It dawned on me that hegemonic masculinity is the foundation of rape culture. For my article, I had interviewed Dr. Martin Schwartz, a sociology professor at George Washington University who specializes in violence against women. He noted that that the definition of a “real man” does not include being a “good lover.” And while men are being told, or pressured, to be men, women are shown that to be ladies they must subscribe to an system called emphasized femininity by being ego-boosters and of a fragile disposition.
So as my friend continued to lecture me, I realized that in arguably minor ways, I too have played a role in rape culture. Just as the many fathers who privately – or publically – lamented over their “effeminate” sons, or the mothers who lovingly praised each other’s boys for being “so big and strong.” I’ve innocently taught boys that in order to gain my respect, they needed to fit the definition of a man. It’s as inappropriate as teaching women that to be respectable they must be thin.
And so, I thought to myself, it’s no wonder that rapes happen.
This past summer, the judicial system demonstrated how powerful a force hegemonic masculinity was in our society. A female midshipman who alleged she was raped by three male midshipmen was cross-examined for 30 hours on her sexual techniques and called a “ho” by the defendants’ lawyers. Upon objections from the prosecutions, the lawyers claimed that establishing how widely she opened her mouth proved that she gave consent. Whether or not lawyers actually believed this was a logical stream of thought, the fact that they believed that this logic could sway jurors shows how brainwashed by hegemonic masculinity we are.
In an earlier, separate case, Ma’lik Richmond was one of two teen boys convicted with raping a passed-out teen girl in Steubenville, Ohio, in August 2012. He told The New Yorker while in jail that because the other rapist, Trent Mays, knew the victim, Richmond didn’t consider the incident rape. What Richmond was really telling us was that even in jail, even after the trial, he didn’t understand why what Mays and he did was wrong.
He explained to the reporter exasperatedly, “They were texting,” as justification for Mays’s actions. This indicates many dangerous issues, like that individuals still believe that a rape can only be committed by a stranger in the bushes (according to a 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, 90 percent of college rapes are committed by an acquaintance of the victim.)
It also indicates that the teachers of hegemonic masculinity – his friends, his coaches, even Disney movies (though I love them, they do establish that a kiss is a conquest, not an experience, and portray women as objects to be won) – have shown Richmond that to be a man, his, and not necessarily his partner’s, sexual acts should be pleasurable.
It means that his sentence is society’s punishment for what society, myself included, created.
That isn’t to say that I’m criticizing the law or defending rapists. No. As one of my girlfriends said, “I should be able to walk down the street naked and not be raped.” But for too long, I’ve been ending all my discussions on rape with, “Men are dumb” – a satisfying, but lazy and fruitless conclusion. Rape is not a problem of male intelligence. It’s a problem that begins, to some extent, with me.
Because when it comes to rape culture, everyone is a victim.